Sunday, January 28, 2007
It seems like every great artist has at least one album in their catalogue that is universally ignored due to the greatness of the album that proceeded it. How often is The Stones' Goat Heads Soup mentioned in the shadow of Exile On Main St. or how about the third Oasis platter Be Here Now after What's The Story Morning Glory? All the great ones from The Beatles and The Beach Boys up to The White Stripes and Radiohead have made great works that have suffered simply due to comparison.
January and February of 1969 is a month that occupies a special place in rock history, specifically 6 days in January and 5 days in February. These 11 days would mark the legendary Elvis Presley American Studio sessions in Memphis, Tennessee. Much has been written about these sessions, Elvis Costello would label the performances supernatural and I'm not sure a better word could have been chosen to describe them.
The American sessions are the sound of an artist at not only his absolute peak but reaching past it. Elvis in that studio is Picasso in his Blue Period and Hemingway writing Old Man And The Sea. This is the sound of a man coming out of a self imposed shell and re-discovering magic, a man getting his soul back against all obstacles.
There has never been a voice as pure as Elvis' during these sessions. Rumor has it that he had a cold early on when in one night he layed down Long Black Limousine, This is The Story and Wearin That Loved On Look. Listening to these songs you can hear the sound of a man shaking off the shackles of a long imprisonment, the voice that Dylan said would break you out of your own prison. No-one has ever been as good as Elvis in these hours of recording.
To many rock and music historians the only album that came out of these sessions was From Elvis in Memphis. It's the album that typically pops up on the great all time albums lists and it is the lp that is remembered. It is often overlooked that there was a second album, a work that has long since almost vanished into obscurity even though it features some of the greatest performances of Elvis Presley's career.
Back In Memphis, with it's dark live photo of Elvis looking like a ghost coming back for war, was originally issued as part of a set called From Vegas To Memphis. One record recorded live in Vegas while the studio sessions lay nearly hidden in the back sleeve. History has placed these ten tracks as near outtakes to the great From Elvis In Memphis sides but a closer inspection not only reveals ten great tracks but one of the most cohesive records Elvis ever delivered.
The opening, Eddie Rabbit penned, track Inherit The Wind sets the tone. Like other albums I have focused on in this series, from Watertown to Houston, we are dealing with a man in isolation. Backed by the incredible American studio house band, including the great Reggie Young on guitar, Elvis is in top from here. The backing female vocals give the song a strange feel that is complimented by the string section that producer Chips Moman would add on later. The song's odd time signatures coupled with Moman's production gives the song a perfect swaying feel that is punctuated by Elvis' reminder of what it's like to indeed Inherit the Wind.
This is The Story follows, and this as mentioned dates from that first historic night Elvis stepped into American studios. The tragic tone is set here for the album, and when Elvis sings 'but the words that I'm reading could apply to myself' we realise why he didn't have to be a songwriter, once he sang a song it was his, they were his autobiography.
Percy Mayfield's startling Stranger In My Own Hometown follows. This is the most rocking track on the album and the most haunting. This is the sound of a man confronting a city that had witnessed the assignation of Martin Luther King less than a year earlier. Elvis' sorrow at this event has been recounted by both Celeste Yarnall and Jerry Schilling, perhaps more than If I Can Dream this is his reaction to it. It's an explosive, surging performance that stands with his greatest work. The song's ferocious climax features one of the strangest horn arrangements ever put on vinyl and Elvis screaming off mike 'Blow your brains out.' He would revisit this song later in his career and re-invent the idea of a blues man in a frightening laid back chronicle of alienation and despair. Anyone who doesn't understand the genius of Elvis Presley should listen to this song.
Just a Little Bit Of Green and Elvis' lovely reading of Neil Diamond's great And The Grass Won't Pay No Mind are sublime examples of sixties pop at his best. More importantly the album never loses it's chronicling of a man who has denied love. Every track leads up to the album's final upcoming declaration making this, even more than I'm 10,000 Years Old, the great Elvis concept album.
Bobby Russell's dark and brooding Do You Know I Am with it's near whispered vocal and far-away tambourine is the calm at the center of the storm. The regret and longing are starting to kick in and it's the perfect opener for a side that's yearning for forgiveness.
Ned Miller's From A Jack To A King was one of Elvis' fathers Vernons favorites. The most playful and country sounding song on the album still fits in perfectly with the idea of lost love and Elvis delivers a slyly comical rendition that provide a brief respite from the darkness that would follow.
The Fair's Moving On would provide the album with some of it's most haunting imagery, with it's portraits of a packing and vanishing carnival and love affair. Bobby Wood's piano playing is particularly impressive as is Moman's kaleidoscope production that surrounds Presley's soulful vocal.
Back in Memphis concludes with two of Elvis' most impressive and greatest performances. Mort Shuman's You'll Think Of Me opens with Reggie Young on Sitar instead of guitar and it's that instrument that takes the lead throughout the song, providing an exotic counterpoint to the perhaps the most soulful vocal performance Elvis ever gave. The song was used as the b-side to the legendary Suspicious Minds and had remained all but hidden in the years since it's release. It is perhaps the great lost jewel in Elvis' crown, listening to it now it's hard to imagine a singer more in tune with all that a song can symbolically give. No-one, not even Sinatra at his most impassioned, has melded together with a song like this one. This song is Elvis Presley.
The album closes with Danny Small's Without Love, and we find our narrator (and I would say Elvis himself) realizing that 'without love, I am nothing at all'. With Bobby Wood again on piano, we find Elvis at his rawest. Paul Westerberg would later write, 'Remember me, I used to wear my heart on my sleeve', and he could have easily been describing Elvis singing this song. Recorded on the final night of the January sessions, and shortly before Suspicious Minds, it gives the album an uncommonly powerful conclusion. We are still with the same person from Inherit The Wind but we have witnessed him changing and ultimately growing. Of all of the concept albums that have gained fame, perhaps only The Pretty Things S.F. Sorrow came to such a resonate and deceptively simple conclusion.
Back In Memphis is out of print in the United States. You can find the songs on Suspicious Minds: The Memphis Anthology or The Sixties Masters box set. Without a doubt the best way to hear the songs is the 24 bit Japanese remaster that comes in a beautiful cardboard lp sleeve reproduction. The sound quality on this release is mindblowing and gives us some of the most spacious and warm sound on any Elvis release.
Elvis Presley would continue his hot streak and record an equally impressive number of sides a year later in Nashville. These sessions, known now as The Nashville Marathon, would produce two masterpieces, That's The Way It Is and I'm About Ten Thousand Years Old. Studio work would be sporadic after that and the last few sessions would find him producing some of his best and worst work, but they all came from his heart. Elvis said in 1969 that he would never record anything he didn't believe in again, and he never did.